Northern Ireland

Born in Syria, raised in Belfast: Student tells of hopes and fears

Tony Salami Image copyright Tony Salami
Image caption Tony Salami's family moved to Belfast from Syria when he was aged three

Tony Salami is much like any other 18-year-old Belfast student, cramming for Christmas exams and looking forward to seeing his old school friends return home from various universities next week.

But the arrival of 51 refugees from Syria, his country of birth, is a more immediate concern.

Tony's own parents made the journey from Damascus to Belfast when he was just three years old.

"My aunt was a doctor in Belfast at the time, in the Royal Victoria Hospital, and so my mum and dad decided to follow her to a much more stable, more prosperous life, even though Syria wasn't that bad of a place to live in back then," he said.

'Greatest fear'

Tony credits their decision for the opportunities presented to him today as an engineering student at Queen's University Belfast.

"My dad is the hardest worker I've ever seen and built his own business here, starting with nothing," he said.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption More than 250,000 people have died in Syria's nearly five-year civil war

But it has been a difficult year for his father, whose extended family remain in Syria.

"He's always checking his phone, wondering if they're safe," said Tony.

"Obviously his greatest fear is that one of these days he'll wake up to a phone call telling him they've been killed.

"The messages from the media can be so misleading. We're often hearing one thing on the news and something completely different when we call our relatives.

"It's upsetting to think of the danger posed to them, but they refuse to leave their homes.

"You can't drive people away from everything they've known, the lives they've built.

"But if Isis get to them, as Christians they are given three choices: convert to Islam, pay crippling taxes to stay alive, or be killed."

Image caption The first group of Syrian refugees arrived in Northern Ireland on Tuesday
Image copyright Pacemaker
Image caption More Syrian refugees are due to arrive in Northern Ireland in the New Year

In September, a campaign group, describing itself as the Protestant Coalition, formed to oppose the arrival of Syrian refugees in Northern Ireland.

The group of about 40 protestors gathered at Belfast City Hall on 5 December for a rally, although a counter-demonstration of several hundred people turned out on the same day to welcome the Syrians' arrival.

Tony said: "As a Christian, I'm always a bit amused when people assume that because I'm Syrian, I must be Muslim.

"But, whether you're a Christian or not, I can say that the attitude among some people to Muslims here is disturbing.

Image copyright Tony Salami
Image caption Tony Salami said he made a speech at his church

"I work for a 'foreigner from the Middle East' who has employed seven people, six of whom are from Northern Ireland.

"That's an 'immigrant' who is benefiting the local community, paying his taxes, creating prosperity and opportunity.

Appeal

"And yet there's still this attitude that immigrants come here and live off the government. That's not my family's experience."

Tony made a speech at his church, appealing to the congregation to pray for the refugees, for the victims of so-called Islamic State, and for Isis themselves, "that something will happen to make them see sense".

"Many of these people are brainwashed, they're just following orders," he said.

Image copyright Tony Salami
Image caption Tony Salami, pictured aged 13 when he last visited Syria

Tony was last in Syria in 2010, during his summer break from Lagan College.

'Regime'

"It was during the World Cup in South Africa and it was the best summer ever, playing football with my cousins and their friends, just messing around for two months," he recalled.

"There was no sense of danger back then. Although I was only about 13, I wasn't aware of being under a regime - it wasn't an intimidating place to be.

"For those fleeing the country now, it's a very different story.

"We have to understand that these are people, human beings just like me and you, who just want to keep their families safe and to provide them with a life without bombs, bullets and war.

"They are literally running for their lives - anyone who would want to keep all these people out doesn't truly understand the severe consequences of them staying in Syria."

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